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Human Rights Commission reorganization questioned

A bill before the County Council that had sought to reorganize the county's Human Rights Commission has been stripped of its most significant changes after commissioners complained they had not received enough input in the decision-making process.

The bill, announced by Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman in December, set forth plans to refocus the commission's efforts away from hearing cases and toward community outreach and education. The idea sprang from his transition team's interviews with staff in the Human Rights Office.

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Kittleman had proposed to shift the responsibility of hearing formal complaints to a hearing examiner with experience in civil rights law. His office said at the time that the administration hoped to recruit a current county employee for the job.

At a January meeting, however, human rights commissioners said the proposed changes came as a shock.

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"I think that the transition team, in its attempt to do a 360 evaluation, missed a group, and that's the commission," said commissioner Opel Jones.

Several commission members said they had not heard enough evidence to be convinced that a reorganization was necessary. County policy director Carl DeLorenzo, who attended the Jan. 15 meeting, told commissioners the proposal to use a hearing examiner was made, in part, to expedite the hearing process.

But commissioner Ivette Lopez said she was "not convinced that you have a real problem in addressing the handful of cases that may reach the state you appear to be concerned about.

"I appreciate your concerns about fairness, due process, all of that... it's just that it seems like a radical change for no obvious reason," she added.

In response to the concerns, Kittleman's office has proposed two amendments to the original bill, which essentially wipe out all of the language related to reorganizing the commission.

When he announced the appointment of the Rev. Dr. Barbara Sands as the county's new Human Rights Administrator last week, Kittleman said any plans to reorganize the commission would be put on hold until Sands had had an opportunity to review them.

But a commission member's testimony at last week's County Council public hearing and a subsequent letter from the chair of the council suggest that concerns about the administration's communication with commissioners remain.

Testifying at the public hearing on Feb. 17, commissioner Jones said commission members had not seen copies of the amendments to the human rights bill until that night, despite requesting them from the administration earlier.

They also said they were not consulted about Sands' appointment.

In response to those complaints, Council Chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty penned a letter on behalf of the County Council on Feb. 19 expressing "profound disappointment in the administration's apparent disregard for the role of the Human Rights Commission.

"This failure to properly engage the commission in the appointment process has unfortunately sent a message of disrespect which the council finds troubling," Sigaty wrote in the letter, which was sent to the administration and commissioners. "As Dr. Sands prepares to begin in the role of Human Rights Administrator, we are concerned that the foundation has been laid for a potentially contentious relationship. It is the council's hope and expectation that you will rectify this situation as quickly as possible."

In a letter Feb. 24, Kittleman responded that "there appears to be some misunderstanding about the appointment process."

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He said that the county's Office of Law had assured him that input from the commission on appointing a new administrator was an option, not a requirement.

Nevertheless, Kittleman continued, "I personally met with several [commission] members before filing the legislation and hiring the new administrator. At no time did the members express an interest in assisting with the selection process."

Human Rights Commission Chair Genevievetter Walker-Lightfoot had a different view.

"They neither consulted nor shared with us that they had chosen a new administrator," Walker-Lightfoot said. "We really want to work with them..."

The amended bill goes before the County Council for a vote March 2.

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